‘See the new shoots, not the charred trees’

ILEIA – There was a memorial service the other day in Artemida, in the prefecture of Ileia, for the seven people who died in the August wildfires. Walls in the fire-ravaged villages are dotted with notices of these memorial services, which additionally serve as a reminder of how life has changed in a period of just over one month. At a hotel in Zacharo, Red Cross staff plan the next day’s delivery of milk to Artemida, a psychologist weeps in her room, remembering an elderly woman she had seen that day who had told her about finding her son in the morgue. In these villages, the people live in fear of yet more tragedies in the form of flooding, cold and poverty. At the memorial service in Artemida, the people honored their dead in the most difficult way – showing that even without them, they will manage. One of Artemida’s oldest inhabitants, Foteini, is to be found wandering its streets at all hours of the day, apart from the hottest hours when no shade is to be found – there are no trees left in the village. Foteini lost her nephew in the fire, but like the rest of the villagers, she won’t wear the black attire of mourning. But the village square is relatively deserted – most people are visiting the cemetery. Stathis is attaching a headstone to the graves of his 5-year-old son and his mother. At the top of the hill are the graves of a mother who died along with her four children while trying to escape the flames. Black humor There is a view down to a group of container homes that serve as temporary housing for those whose own homes were destroyed, and where a children’s playground is being built. In the aftermath of the fires, very little seems normal here. The electricity pylons where notices for memorial services are fluttering, animals wandering around the village like a scene from Guernica, people sitting on their balconies in office chairs. Black humor abounds among the residents. At circles of tables and chairs, the only shelter for what used to be the village square is a single pine tree. A man teases his elderly neighbor affectionately. «If you had died in the fire I could have taken all your goats, but you had to go and save yourself!» he said, to laughter all round. As we prepare to leave the village, Foteini approaches us, asking us to do her a favor: «I want you to do something for me,» she says. «When you leave here, please remember that we made you laugh. And as you leave and look around, don’t look at the blackened trees. Look at the soil. Look at all the little shoots coming up.»